Houda Nonoo
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Ramadan reminds me how lucky I am to be a Jew living in the Gulf

We go to their iftar meals, they came to our synagogue opening. What more do we need to prove our culture of peace, dialogue, and coexistence?
Jews and sheikhs celebrate Hanukkah in Bahrain, December 24, 2016. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Jews and sheikhs celebrate Hanukkah in Bahrain, December 24, 2016. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Nearly 1.9 billion Muslims around the world are currently celebrating Ramadan. It is very exciting to scroll through social media and see photos and videos from hundreds of interfaith iftar meals taking place globally. Someone recently asked me if I remember my first iftar experience. As I thought about it, I realized that I could not pinpoint my first iftar because growing up as a Bahraini Jew, iftar — and Ramadan more broadly — has always been part of my life. That is what led me to host the first-ever interfaith iftar at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country’s embassy when I was in Washington in 2009.

Bahrain, an island long known for its tolerance, coexistence and its freedom of religion has always welcomed people from different faiths and backgrounds to its shores. In the 1880s, Jews from Iraq looking for better economic and living prospects came to Bahrain. Since then, Jewish life in the kingdom has flourished. Many of our families were traders and started their own textiles, electronics and money exchange businesses. Others worked for the oil companies, banks, schools, or even the government. In 1934, Ebrahim Pinchas Nonoo was elected into the municipality council — he was the first of many Bahraini Jews to be appointed to government positions. Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo was appointed to the Shura Council in 2001, I was appointed in 2006, and Nancy Khedouri was appointed in 2010.

Our Bahraini Jewish families have always lived alongside Bahraini Muslim families. Our grandparents shared stories of their neighbors helping to heat their food on Shabbat. Generations later, we naturally continue to celebrate important events together, including attending each other’s weddings, our participation in their iftar meals, and their visits to our recently renovated synagogue. Under His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s leadership, Bahrain has been committed to spreading a culture of peace, dialogue and coexistence. These values are inculcated within us as young children, and they guide how we live as adults.

Our community is flourishing. We are blessed to live in an Arab country that provides equal opportunities to us Jews as it does to citizens and residents of all religious backgrounds. Over the years, many have asked me what it was like to be appointed as the first Jewish ambassador from an Arab country. The truth is that non-Bahrainis are more surprised by my appointment than Bahrainis are, because His Majesty has always supported equal rights and opportunities for people of all faiths — it did not strike me as odd that a Jew would be appointed to this position. It was an honor to represent Bahrain in my role as ambassador.

Despite our size, we are proud to play a large role in Jewish life in the Gulf as the only indigenous Jewish community. We have the oldest synagogue (built in 1931) in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), as well as the only operating Jewish cemetery. Our community has been thriving for nearly 150 years and continues to grow. We have done this all with the support of His Majesty, Bahrain’s leadership, and our Muslim neighbors.

Recently, we have been able to share our experiences with the Jewish communities in the other 5 GCC countries as we helped to establish the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), headquartered here in Manama. The AGJC is a people-to-people network of Jewish communities from the GCC countries that are developing Jewish life in the region. Since our launch in February, we have held virtual Purim, Passover, and Yom HaShoah events with thousands of participants. We are also working with the Jewish Welfare Board to provide programs and services for Jewish military personnel on US bases.

Our mission is to provide programming and services that are needed for Jews in the region. As the longest-standing Jewish community in the GCC, we recognize the critical role we play in achieving this objective. Tied to that, we understand that as the broader Jewish community in the Gulf grows, it is important that we continue to foster our deep-rooted — and in many cases, generations’ old — relationships with our Muslim neighbors. With that in mind, we make sure to always include an interfaith component in all of our activities — whether it is a joint panel of Muslims and Jews for Yom HaShoah or our upcoming Lag B’Omer/Iftar event where H.E. Ambassador Sh. Abdulla Rashed Al Khalifa (Ambassador of Bahrain to the United States), H.E. Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba (Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States) and Ambassador Marc Sievers (former ambassador of the United States to the Sultanate of Oman) will participate in a panel discussion moderated by Rabbi David Rosen (the American Jewish Committee’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs) discussing how interfaith and coexistence is propelling our region forward.

Ramadan reminds me how lucky I am to be a Jew living in the Gulf and specifically, in Bahrain, where religious freedom is a core value. Since our Jewish community has always been so well embraced, we have become part of the fabric of Bahraini society. Now, as Jewish life in the Gulf expands, we are able to help other communities in the region as they grow.

About the Author
Houda Nonoo served as Bahrain's ambassador to the United States from 2008-2013. She is the first Jew to be appointed an ambassador of Bahrain.
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